TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—It wasn’t the Tompkins County Legislature’s busiest meeting, but several matters of importance were settled at the session held Thursday, March 17, delayed because of a conference involving several legislators.

There were three main sections to the meeting, consisting of a COVID-19 update, poll worker pay and assigned counsel fees for those needing free attorney services. You can watch the whole meeting here or follow along on the agenda here.

COVID-19 Update

In their regularly scheduled update, the last of its kind, Tompkins County Deputy Administrator Amie Hendrix and Public Health Director Frank Kruppa delivered another COVID-19 update, showing no vast increase in positive cases and a hospitalization number that is still quite low.

For better or worse, like most of the country, the health department has elevated hospitalizations (currently 0) over active cases (currently 223) as a more accurate indicator of the pandemic locally, but those numbers have held fairly low so far. That’s even after the mask mandate was lifted in schools (most schools are now mask-optional in the area), Hendrix noted.

“COVID isn’t over, it’s still part of us and part of our community,” Kruppa said. “Things are going as well as we could hope for at this point.”

Legislator Randy Brown (R-District 8) praised the health department’s overall job reacting to the pandemic and suggested that certain stresses placed on local infrastructure, particularly medical infrastructure for ICU beds in the county, etc.

Kruppa said any recommendation for another booster shot would come from the New York State Department of Health. The group did not address the BA.2 variant of COVID-19, which has generated talk of another wave of positive cases, though that may play out over the next week or two and subsequently rise to more prominence.

Poll Worker Pay

The legislature also considered and passed a resolution that bumped the pay of Election Day poll workers to $15.32 per hour.

“We’ve certainly heard grievances about the long days and the little pay that our election workers get,” said Legislature Chair Shawna Black (D-District 11). Government Operations Committee Chair Amanda Champion (D-District 12) clarified that the pay was $12.50 per hour before the bill was passed.

Legislator Greg Mezey (D-District 13) argued that, due to the importance of the job (and the fact that Tompkins County touts itself as a living wage employer), the pay should be bumped to $15.32 per hour (instead of the initially proposed $14.00 per hour) to meet living wage standards which would have represented about an $11,000 increase. That was rebuffed by fellow legislator Mike Lane (D-District 14), who agreed with Mezey’s sentiment but said that pay would bump them up above full-time employees.

“We need to think about every penny we’re spending now,” Lane said. “I think it’s the wrong time and the wrong place to do this.”

Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-District 2) backed Mezey, though, saying that the poll workers deserve a living wage despite whatever theoretical strain it would cause the county to incur the extra costs. Brown and Legislator Anne Koreman (D-District 5) joined Mezey.

“We talk all the time about free and fair elections being the bedrock of our democracy and we’re quibbling about $1.32 an hour,” Legislator Deborah Dawson said. “I just don’t get it.”

Assigned Counsel Fees

The legislature then brought Assigned Counsel Supervising Attorney Lance Salisbury forward to speak about the need for higher assigned counsel fees, which haven’t been changed since 2004. Assigned Counsel is a county- and state-funded program that provides free attorney services based on financial eligibility.

Since that 2004 increase, which the state ordered but placed on the county’s shoulders to pay, attorneys working cases through Assigned Counsel have been paid $60 per hour for misdemeanor cases and $75 per hour for felony cases, family court matters and more. In the world of attorneys (and maybe only there), that is not very much money and hamstrings the program’s ability to attract attorneys to participate in the program. The bill, which passed, calls for Assigned Counsel fees to increase to $120 per hour for misdemeanors and $150 per hour for felonies and other matters.

“The current rates are impacting our ability to maintain our panel size,” Salisbury said. “Over the last two years, we’ve lost about eight of our most experienced attorneys. They’ve moved on to institutional providers. Many of our attorneys have families, they need to meet healthcare needs, and these rates frankly don’t cut it.”

Salisbury further stated that there is a potential battle over assigned counsel coming up statewide, as proposed legislative budgets have about $210 million allocated for higher assigned counsel wages, but Gov. Kathy Hochul’s currently does not. There is a lawsuit that would seek to mandate that assigned counsel fees increase in New York, with an injunction potentially set to enforce that rise immediately on April 1, but that suit does not dictate that New York has to cover that difference in payment, theoretically meaning the county would have to do it.

With the passage of the bill, though, the county should be able to avoid paying more and have the state cover the necessary difference.

Other news and notes:

  • As was previously covered, interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes was elevated to the position on a permanent basis, having the interim tag removed. It’s the first time a woman has been selected to lead the county. Legislators heaped praise upon Holmes, with Dawson interestingly adding that she was glad Holmes “changed her mind and decided to take the job.”
  • Legislator Lee Shurtleff (R-District 10) paid tribute to the Irish community in Groton, citing the meeting’s taking place on St. Patrick’s Day, and explaining to legislators and the audience the role that Irish workers played in the early days of typewriter production in the area, when Irish immigrants would otherwise have tough times finding jobs.
  • Legislator Amanda Champion detailed the legislature’s recent trip to the New York State Association of Counties. Separately, Tompkins County Director of Communications Dominick Recckio told The Ithaca Voice that no county officials have tested positive for COVID after attending the conference, though several other people have from other counties.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com